Watkins Glen June 18-19, 2011

Once again this year, the 48 Hours at the Glen was scheduled for Father’s Day weekend, which also coincides with one of my grandsons’ birthday. We had to work around those conflicts because this is one event I don’t want to miss. I had a great time last year and this time it was even better, although the weather forecast right up to the day of arrival didn’t look very good. Fortunately the weather in the Finger Lakes is very unpredictable and turned in our favour for the entire weekend – nothing but sunny skies and moderate temperatures throughout.

There was a track walk scheduled for 5:15 Friday afternoon, after the Instructors’ lapping day had ended. So I left home around 10 AM to ensure that I’d get a good parking spot near the garages that had been reserved for our Region and I’d be able to get settled before the walk began. Just a mile from home I hit a heavy rain shower, which darkened my mood for five minutes or so until I got on the highway and the rain stopped. I only experienced a few more small showers all the way to the border and then no more until just before supper Friday night. At the US border crossing, the guard asked me my citizenship and where I lived, as usual. Then he said “Are you going to Watkins Glen?” instead of “Where are you going?”, since there had already been a number of Porsches passing through. He took a quick look in the back of the truck and sent me off with no more fanfare.

I arrived at the track in good time at about 3:30 after taking a small detour past Seneca Lodge to a portion of the original Grand Prix circuit, which used public roads. Those roads were narrow and twisty and lined with ditches and forests – it must have been quite a thrill to race on them. One of my co-instructors from Calabogie – named Ted – was near our garages and pointed me to a parking spot right outside the door. We asked a fellow from Mass., who had just arrived, to move his rig just a bit to provide more space and I was all set with a perfect location. We were in garages 1, 2 and 3, which are the best because they are close to the area where the drivers’ meetings are held, close the entrance from pit lane, close to the washroom outbuilding and farthest from the tech line and staging area, so there is little congestion outside. I parked my car in garage 2, right beside Ted’s.

Once I was unloaded and settled in, Ted asked me if I’d like a taste of the track in his car. So I grabbed my helmet and climbed into his 2004 GT3. Ted is one of the most seasoned PCA and En Track instructors and has raced for years. He and I are of a similar age, although I suspect he’s still in his fifties. He has a great sense of humour and can pull your leg with a deadpan expression that masks his mischievous intent beautifully. And he can drive! I tried to focus on the road ahead, to minimize the onset of nausea, and was pretty successful for about 6-7 laps. At that point I asked him to pit, to avoid feeling any worse or doing some damage to his interior. The car is very fast and the brakes are very good, but although he’s extremely good, the ride was a little violent due to the extremes of acceleration and braking. I mentioned this to him the next day by saying that he was driving pretty hard and he said “You think that was hard?” Then he went on to say how racers drive even harder, with extremely rapid changes in acceleration/deceleration, such that it’s difficult to be smooth on the transitions because of the speed at which they occur. But they’re never abrupt, which is something I continue to work on.

As 5 o’clock came around, the other Rennsport instructors came off the track and several other friends arrived, so we soon had a crowd of about 8 familiar faces in our garages. We planned to have dinner together later, but first the beer came out and there was still the track walk to deal with. Neither of my non-instructor friends (Peter and Paul), were planning to do the walk, so I had just about decided not to as well, partly because I knew it would take a couple of hours to complete. But then Jennifer – the Zone 1 representative – came over and asked me if I’d be willing to take my truck and trailer out for the “walk”, so people could ride on the trailer like, a sleigh ride, between corners. She’s a lovely young lady (and a PCA instructor to boot), and was hard to resist, so I agreed to do it. I’d get the benefit of the walk without the exercise and Paul decided to join me for the ride.

I should mention here that it was starting to get a little warm, but my truck’s heating/air conditioning system was acting up and I could only get the A/C (or heater), to work on the high speed fan setting. So if it got any warmer or if it started to rain, we wouldn’t have much help from the ventilation system. I have since Googled the problem and learned that it’s likely the blower motor which has failed, causing an inline resistor to burn out. Looks like I’ll have to replace the blower motor and resistor before long.

I reconnected the trailer and people piled onto it, as well as another trailer, and we drove slowly down to Turn 1. There was a little bit of oil on the trailer from a tiny leak my car has developed at the oil reservoir – I hope nobody sat in it! The instructor who was leading the track walk had told Jennifer that he would speak at several corners, but we would drive between them to speed up the process. However, when he started it was clear that he wanted to tell the people everything he knew about the track, so they all walked from Turn 1 to Turn 2. Then they got onto the trailers and we drove part way up the esses, only to stop again halfway up the hill. From then on, they walked all the way around to the toe of the Boot, as I drove at walking speed and idled quite a bit. By the time we got to the Nascar cut-off at Turn 5, Paul had had enough and asked Jennifer to arrange a ride back to the pits in the Glen’s service truck which was accompanying us. I stuck with the walkers until they dismounted again in the sole of the Boot, when Jennifer and I drove back as well. It had been showering lightly on and off but the walkers didn’t seem to mind, probably because most of them were novices who found the learning very valuable.

After returning to the garage, I unhooked the trailer and drove down to the Lodge to register, thinking that all of my friends would have finished supper by then. But when I checked in, I learned that they had just arrived, so I was able to join them for a nice supper in the very busy dining room. It was an enjoyable evening of eating, drinking and story-telling and I got to bed a little later than I would have liked. My cabin was one of two adjoining units, so I had to listen to the couple next door talking until they finally settled down for the night. Needless to say, it had been a long day and I slept reasonably well.

Saturday morning dawned clear and bright, promising to be a good day. The President of Rennsport had volunteered us to be on the tech inspection line both mornings, so I got to the track before it began at 7 o’clock, after picking up a coffee and muffin in town. I had a few minutes to check my tire pressures and install the camera, but then I spent close to an hour tightening lug nuts on about 120 cars. When there were about 4-5 left in the line-up, Ted came over and volunteered to take over, to give me a break. What a comedian! The drivers’ meeting began at 8 o’clock and lasted at least 25 minutes, allowing little time for the first run group to get ready. I was back at my car checking something, when a voice from behind me said “Is that motor still running OK?” I didn’t see a face or recognize the voice, so I turned around with an automatic response already formed, to say “It’s just fine.” The person was “Chuck” the engine builder, with a smarmy, smirky grin on his face. He just kept on walking while I said, still on autopilot, “How are you doin’?”, since I was too surprised to think of something more clever to say, such as “It’s fine…now.” But that’s okay, since later that morning the Red group was black-flagged because one of them had gone off track and crashed pretty hard down in the boot – it was Chuck. Last year he blew up his engine and stopped traffic for the clean-up. Maybe he should stick to wrenching.

In my first stint, I had no trouble remembering the line or the turning points and I don’t think it would have mattered if the cones had been removed. I had the camera running, but later when I wanted to view the video I realized I hadn’t erased all of the videos from Mosport. While I was doing that, I hit a wrong button and accidentally erased the new one. So I didn’t have a baseline to use for comparisons later in the weekend. But I was happy with my driving and the car’s behaviour, and I looked forward to the next run, which was supposed to be an instructed run. I asked Ted to come with me and he agreed, so about an hour and a half later we went out. He was happy to find that he didn’t need to fumble with a six-point harness, but by the end of the drive he was running out of things to hang onto.  After a couple of laps I was given a passing signal part way along the back straight leading to the Inner Loop. I accelerated and got past easily enough, but my speed was pretty high and I left the braking a little too late. As we approached the turn-in point I knew I wasn’t going to make it, so I said “expletive” and drove straight between two cones into the escape road. Ted simply said, “You handled that well” and we motored on when a break occurred in the traffic. Overall, he said very little about my driving, but towards the end he suggested accelerating harder through the Inner Loop and lifting slightly to encourage rotation for the second left-hander at its exit. He also suggested shortening up the entry to Turns 6 and 9, just to save some time. After we finished, he suggested that I work on applying the brakes a bit more gradually with more consistency, to be a bit smoother and to allow the car to be better balanced.

In the afternoon, my third and fourth stints were good, but I shortened them considerably when I saw the oil temperature gauge approaching 120 C. The ambient temp had reached the mid-twenties, which frequently correlates with higher oil temps, but I suspect the gauge may be inaccurate. After the fourth run I quickly got the infrared thermometer and measured the external temp at the sender while the motor was still running. Although the gauge still said 115 C, the thermometer read 85-90 C, which is a huge difference between the inside and the outside of the case. The oil pressure had stayed strong throughout, so I have to find a spare gauge somewhere that I can use for comparison testing. During one of these stints I could see my magnetic vinyl number on the hood flapping at the sides, where I had not used racer’s tape to secure it. At the top of the esses it suddenly flew off and went sailing over the car. On Sunday it was returned to me, looking like it had been run over by a train! It is now mounted on the wall in Fearless Garage.

At the end of the afternoon, we hung around the garage until after 6:30, drinking beer and shooting the breeze. We planned to meet at the Seneca Lodge dining room for their famous Saturday ribs at 8 o’clock, but when we arrived the place was hopping and we had to wait in the bar until close to 9 o’clock before they could organize a table for 12. To add insult to injury, they had run out of BBQ sauce, then sauerkraut, then the ribs themselves! But we had an enjoyable meal all the same and crawled into bed around 11 o’clock.

Now, to the people.

  • When I arrived, I met Greg and his wife from Acton, MA. I mentioned that I met someone else from Acton at either Mid-Ohio or VIR and he spent the whole evening trying to figure out who it could have been. But I couldn’t remember the guy’s name or where I’d met him, so it was inconclusive.
  • On Sunday I met another guy named Wayne who was raised in Toronto but now lives in MA. He encouraged me to come to Lime Rock on July 15, since he’ll be there and he’s sure I would enjoy it.
  • We have a new member named Marc who lives in Montreal and whose cousin is a Rennlist member from Toronto (who was also there). They discovered each other after 40 years and found that they had the same model and colour of car – 996 GT3’s. Marc had bought his car from an insurance company in Arizona after it had been crashed and he rebuilt it completely. Ted drove the car briefly on Sunday and said it was really awesome – tight, flat and fast. Marc and I sat together during dinner and he was very interested in the engine history of my car.
  • An instructor named Richard was there from Toronto – the same guy who had steered an entire lap at Mosport in my car from the right seat the first time I went there. He blew a cooling hose in his GT3, which Marc diagnosed, and called a mechanic from nearby who came to the track Sunday morning to fix it for a nominal fee.
  • A fellow was there named Dan, from NYC, whom we had met last year. He complained about a strange wobbling feeling that appeared Saturday morning in his GT3 former race car and that he couldn’t diagnose. He and I spent a lot of time exploring the various possibilities and concluded that he might have a bad tire (although they were new), since he swore that all of the suspension joints were good, having just had it modified and rebuilt. But Richard’s mechanic took a look at it and found that one of the eccentric bolts that are used to adjust rear camber and toe-in was loose. So Dan was able to tighten it with the loan of my tools and got back on track.
  • Ted couldn’t understand why I was adding air to my tires Sunday morning, thinking that the pressures should still be good after sitting overnight. But I remove air during a normal day, to reset the cold pressures before every stint. So I have to replace that air after the car sits overnight, to get back to the correct starting point. Sunday morning Ted checked his own and discovered that he had the same problem, so he admitted that he’d learned something. Then he wanted to know where I’d bought my portable air tank, since he will now need one!

Sunday morning the tech line was voluntary, so we had very few customers to check over. We learned at the drivers’ meeting that the apex cones had been removed, although they left the turn-in cones beside the track, about 20-30 feet from the edge. To me, this is a much better way to learn to drive fast, not being distracted by the presence of the cones. I had two really good stints in flawless weather, setting my fastest lap times of the weekend back-to-back when the traffic was fairly light. Using the video recordings, I measured two laps of 2:40 in the first stint, which were a full ten seconds faster than last year. Apart from both the car and me being lighter – by about 50 lbs – the main reason was that I was pushing harder, everywhere. The tires were squealing in most corners and it was necessary to upshift from third to fourth halfway up the esses because I was taking them at full throttle from turn-in all the way to the bus stop. It was very satisfying to look at these videos Sunday night at home and realize what I had accomplished. In the second stint I was slowed down a bit because I got caught up in heavier traffic, mostly very fast cars that I had to let by in clusters on both straights – even going into the boot. I had no problems with oil temperature on Sunday, partly because the ambient was a little lower.

I decided to leave early and miss the final stint, so I could get home at a decent hour – just like last year. When I passed through Canadian border control, the guard showed keen interest in my weekend, by asking me how much it had cost to drive at the Glen and how fast I was going (about 190 km/h actual). I got home around 7:30 and unloaded, knowing that I’d have to check a number of things before my next event at Mont Tremblant four days later. I drove a total of 257 km on track and spent about $350 on fuel for the truck and car. I had to tighten the trailer axle nuts twice, so I must remember to do that often on all future trips. It was an outstanding weekend at one of my favourite tracks, which now holds the record for my fastest average speed – about 122 km/h. Can’t wait to go back!

Video is available at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o40dW1HX8QY

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